'With all the pain, we have come out of it stronger'

A religious boys’ high school in Efrat grapples with war losses

Neveh Shmuel Yeshiva High School in Efrat has had three recent alumni from the same class fall in Gaza fighting, along with two parents of current students

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

Neveh Shmuel Yeshiva High School class of 2020 on a field trip. The three alumni who were killed while fighting in Gaza are circled in red. (courtesy)
Neveh Shmuel Yeshiva High School class of 2020 on a field trip. The three alumni who were killed while fighting in Gaza are circled in red. (courtesy)

As an institution at the forefront of the Religious Zionist movement, Neveh Shmuel Yeshiva High School for boys has seen generations of alumni move on to serve in some of the most elite IDF combat units.

Located in the Gush Etzion settlement of Efrat in the West Bank, just south of Jerusalem, the school is now dealing with the difficult repercussions of such dedication.

Three young alumni who graduated together were recently killed in action during the Israel-Hamas war, along with two parents of current students.

“It hurts, it’s a loss for the staff and for the students. We went to all the funerals and the visits to the families,” says Rabbi Avishai Milner, Rosh Yeshiva of Neveh Shmuel.

“In the end, with all the pain, we have come out of it stronger,” he says.

“The current generation, the young people, we are ready to say that they are the generation of Tik Tok, of screens, but we can see that they are heroes. They come and do what is needed,” he adds, noting that some of the fallen soldiers have younger brothers currently attending the school.

Rabbi Avishai Milner, Rosh Yeshiva of Neveh Shmuel Yeshiva High School in Efrat. (courtesy)

Describing an intense period of visiting families and going to funerals, he relates a story of how, while driving on the way to pay a shiva call (a traditional visit to the bereaved family) for one of the students, he received a call that another had been killed.

The three alumni who were killed, Yehonatan Semo, Eytan Dishon and Eitan Rosenzweig, were all from the class of 2020. Milner was their teacher and spiritual counselor and described them to the Times of Israel from this perspective.

Staff Sgt. Yehonatan Semo, 21, of the Paratrooper’s 202nd Battalion, was injured while fighting in Gaza on November 8, was hospitalized but succumbed to his wounds on November 10. Milner describes him as a quintessential “people person,” a natural leader who was “loved by everyone, the glue which held his peers together.”

Because he was hospitalized before he died, a group of his classmates were able to make a late-night visit to his bed and interact with his family. Semo’s parents were born in Ethiopia and his family was a shining example of the success of the Ethiopian immigration to Israel, Milner explains.

Composite image of three fallen alumni from Neveh Shmuel Yeshiva High School, showing them as 12th graders in 2020 and as IDF soldiers later. From left to right: Eytan Dishon, Yehonatan Semo, and Eitan Rosenzweig. (courtesy)

Staff Sgt. Eytan Dishon, 21, of the Givati Brigade’s reconnaissance unit, was killed in northern Gaza on November 20. Dishon was “very smart, quiet, with a rich inner world. He was the ideal student, very dedicated and disciplined, a leader,” Milner says.

The IDF had wanted Dishon to be in intelligence or the air force, but he decided to go first to a pre-army yeshiva in Kiryat Shemona instead, where the rosh yeshiva told him that he would also be the head of a yeshiva one day.

“During a trip to Poland, we talked about the Holocaust, about how they [the Jewish communities] couldn’t do anything because they didn’t have an army,” Milner recalls. “I remember that he couldn’t deal with this point, he said we have an army now, so for us, we won’t have this situation, we can protect each other.”

Staff Sgt. Eitan Dov Rosenzweig, 21, of the Givati Brigade’s Shaked Battalion, was killed on November 22 in Gaza. He “was different, fascinating, very talented, very curious, a very interesting and rich person,” Milner says. He describes how Rosenzweig would meet him for extra learning study sessions at 6:30 a.m., before the morning prayers.

Rosenzweig was a “spiritual intellectual” who had an unusually broad understanding of Judaism but also, while still in high school, completed a BA degree in economics from the Open University. He also was close to the Gur Hassidic community in Jerusalem, visited museums, and was “interested in everything.”

He was also a poet, spoken word performer and a gifted visual artist. His final project in 12th grade was an intricate, four-meter-long illustration detailing important events in Jewish history. The school, Milner said, plans to print a book of Rosenzweig’s poetry and art.

Detail from Eitan Rosenzweig’s final art project. (courtesy)

The fathers of two current students have also fallen in battle: Dr. Eitan Neeiman, 45, who was killed while serving as a combat medic on October 11, and Sgt. Maj. Yossi Hershkovitz, 44, who was the principal of another religious boys’ school, ORT Pelech in Jerusalem.

The environment at Neveh Shmuel is different now, and “a lot of people are sad and affected. There isn’t anything perfect these days, but we have to try our best,” Milner stresses.

Around 40 percent of the staff are currently doing reserve IDF duty, along with most of the husbands of the female staff teachers and administrators. Despite this, he says the school is succeeding in creating a “reasonable” learning schedule.

Neveh Shmuel is part of the Ohr Torah Stone network of educational institutions and was founded by American-born Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who was a student of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. As such, the organization maintains strong ties with the Modern Orthodox community in the United States.

Like other schools in the Religious Zionist movement, Ohr Torah Stone strives to teach a balance of religious and secular studies, while instilling a sense of service to the Zionist mission and the State of Israel.

Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander (Sally Katzin Photography)

The entire Ohr Torah Stone network has around 4,000 alumni serving in reserve duty, says Rabbi Dr. Katriel Kenneth Brander, who succeeded Riskin several years ago as head of Ohr Torah Stone.

He explains that for the entire network, there are in total seven former students who have been killed, and a further 23 associated families who have lost a husband or family member, either during the fighting or as a result of the October 7 massacres.

Ohr Torah Stone is operating on several levels during the war, including having fundraising drives, planning a dedicated effort for mental health and trauma infrastructure, hosting evacuee families in some of their facilities, organizing visits to families and soldiers, and more.

“We are mourning these losses, and I am concerned about my faculty, but the resolve, the spirit is amazing,” Brander says. “It’s not just by us. The resolve, the commitment, the willingness to put anyone’s personal stuff on hold to deal with the larger issues, it’s not just the ethos of the community but of the entire country.”

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